The first episode Mark Gatiss wrote for the TV series, based loosely on his Big Finish Doctor Who episode "Phantasmagoria". Also, as the episode is set at Christmastime, the closest thing Christopher Eccleston has to a Christmas special on Doctor Who, even if the seasonal festivities are in name only.
The Cardiff rift remains open, and becomes a major feature of the Whoniverse from this point on.
At the funeral home of Sneed & Company in Cardiff, Mr. Redpath's late grandmother, Mrs. Peace, has just been laid to rest. Gabriel Sneed gives the young man a moment alone to mourn her passing, but as Redpath grieves, a blue miasma seeps into his grandmother's body ...and the dead woman opens her eyes, reaches out and grabs her grandson by the throat. Sneed rushes into the room just in time to see the late Mrs. Peace snap her grandson's neck, and he tries to force the old lady back into her coffin, both distressed and exasperated that this is happening again. Mrs. Peace smashes her way out of the coffin, knocking Sneed senseless, and staggers, wailing, out into the street, wreathed in an ethereal blue vapour...
Having shown Rose the future, the Doctor intends to show her the past, and he thus sets course for Naples, 24 December 1860. The TARDIS makes the journey and materialises with some effort on both the Doctor's and Rose's parts. Rose is awestruck to think that she's about to step out into a Christmas Eve that was over and gone long before she was ever born, but before she can do so, the Doctor sends her to the wardrobe; he considers his own clothing appropriate enough, but Rose's modern attire would cause a riot in the 19th century. He's surprised by how beautiful she looks in the gown she picks to blend in with the surroundings, for a human. The Doctor opens the TARDIS doors, but Rose is the first to step out and make a footprint in the snow. Arm in arm, she and the Doctor walk off to see history for themselves.
Sneed's young maid, Gwyneth, returns from her duties in the stables to find Sneed recovering from the cadaver's attack. This isn't the first time the dead have walked in Sneed's funeral home but when Sneed admits that Redpath was killed, the horrified Gwyneth realises that things have gone too far. Though she doesn't wish to speak out of turn, she begs Sneed to get some proper help. Sneed promises to do so, but first they must find Mrs. Peace and get her back under lock and key. There's no sign of her in the streets, and Sneed thus turns to Gwyneth, ordering her to use her Sight to track down the dead woman. Gwyneth feels her gift to be unnatural, but when Sneed threatens to dismiss her from his service unless she does as instructed, she reluctantly looks deep within herself... and senses that, before her death, the old woman was excited about seeing a great man who has recently come from London.
The man in question is Charles Dickens, who's about to go on stage at the Taliesin Lodge. When the stage manager arrives at Dickens' dressing room, however, he finds the great writer in a depressed, bleak mood. Christmas Eve is a bad time to be alone, and Dickens is brooding over his bad relationship with his family and the mistakes he's made in his life. The thought of the show does little to cheer him up, as he's been telling the same stories over and over again for so long that he fears his imagination has run dry. But his audience awaits, and Dickens thus pulls himself together and steps out on stage, to thunderous applause from most apart from the late Mrs. Peace, who is sitting in the middle of the audience and staring blankly ahead. The crowd listens, enraptured, as Dickens begins to recite A Christmas Carol, but just as he gets to the point at which Marley's face appears in Scrooge's door-knocker, the dead Mrs. Peace begins to glow. The crowd begins to panic as the dead woman lets out an unearthly shriek and a gaseous blue phantom emerges from her body...
Outside the theatre, Sneed and Gwyneth have arrived on the trail of Mrs. Peace, and the Doctor and Rose have just flagged down a newspaper vendor and discovered that they're actually in Cardiff, 1869, rather than Naples, 1860 (not that Rose cares). The Doctor then hears the mass exodus from the theatre and rushes to investigate, with Rose hot on his heels. Inside, Dickens is trying to convince the crowd that the shrieking spectre is just some sort of theatrical trick, and when the Doctor rushes up, asking when it appeared, Dickens accuses him of somehow engineering this farce. The spectre separates from Mrs. Peace's body, which collapses into the seat and Sneed and Gwyneth promptly pick up her body and bundle it out of the theatre. In all the commotion, Rose is the only one to notice them go, and she chases them out of the theatre, demanding answers. Gwyneth tries to convince her that nothing's wrong, but when Rose pushes past her to examine the old woman's body and realizes she is dead, Sneed panics, chloroforms Rose, and orders the appalled Gwyneth to stick her in the hearse as well.
The spectre is drawn into one of the theatre's lamps and vanishes, and the Doctor realises that it's made of gas. He then follows Rose out of the theatre, pursued by the furious Dickens, and emerges just in time to see Sneed and Gwyneth bundle the unconscious Rose into the back of their hearse and set off. The Doctor promptly boards another coach and orders the driver to follow the hearse, and when Dickens protests that this is his coach, the Doctor hauls him aboard as well. Surprised, Dickens' driver sets the carriage in motion, and as Dickens tries to protest, the Doctor learns who he's riding with and immediately begins gushing over Dickens' genius and boundless imagination. Flattered, Dickens finally calms down, and when he learns that the Doctor's 19-year-old friend is in danger, he orders the bewildered driver to keep going.
Sneed and Gwyneth lay out Rose in the viewing room, unsure what they're going to do about her or the bizarre occurrences in the funeral home. The Doctor and Dickens then arrive at the front door, and though Gwyneth tries to turn them away, the Doctor notices the gas lamps flickering oddly and pushes past her to listen at the walls. He can hear whispers, as though there's something living in the gas pipes. He and Dickens then hear Rose crying out for help; she's woken just in time to see the spectres take over the late Mr. Redpath and Mrs. Peace and climb out of their coffins. The Doctor kicks open the locked door and rescues Rose, but the corpses then speak in eerie, hissing voices, claiming that "the rift" is failing and begging for help. The assembled group watches in shock as the gaseous spectres hiss out of the bodies, which fall to the floor as the spectres are drawn back into the gas lamps.
Later, Gwyneth pours tea for Sneed's visitors, and serves the Doctor his tea exactly as he likes it without his having to ask. Meanwhile, Rose lashes out at Sneed for drugging and kidnapping her, and then leaving her at the zombies' mercies. The stricken Sneed admits that the dead have been walking for the past three months, and that they retain some scraps of memory from their former lives. Dickens tries to insist that this is an illusion of some sort, but the irritated Doctor tells him to shut up and questions Sneed further. When Sneed admits that he's never had trouble with the gas lines before, but that the house has long had a reputation for being haunted, the Doctor theorises that there's a rift in time and space located in the building and that it's getting stronger, allowing something to slip through from the other side.
Frustrated, Dickens returns to the viewing room, examining the gas lamps and Redpath's corpse for some sign of fraud. The Doctor follows him and apologises for his harsh words, but insists that Dickens apply his boundless imagination to what he's seen. Decomposing bodies produce gas, so what better habitation for a creature that is itself made of gas? Dickens, suddenly weary, tells the Doctor that, while he appreciates an illusion for its own sake, he's never mistaken them for more than that. Instead, he's spent his life fighting injustice and struggling to improve the lot of people living in the real world. But now, it seems that the "real world" is a realm of spectres and ghosts. Has he been wrong about the world all these years, and if so, does this mean he's wasted his life?
Gwyneth is shocked when Rose offers to help her out in the scullery, and Rose, for her part, is appalled to learn that Gwyneth only earns eight pounds a year and would have been happy with six. Rose tries to strike up a conversation with Gwyneth, who is fascinated by Rose's strange ways and mortified when Rose asks her if there are any boys she fancies. Rose learns that Sneed took Gwyneth in when she was 12, after her parents died of the flu; she sympathises, and Gwyneth understands that it's because Rose lost her own father. However, Gwyneth is content that her parents are in paradise, and that she'll be reunited with them one day. It occurs to Rose to wonder how Gwyneth knew about her father, and Gwyneth, suddenly flustered, suggests that the Doctor must have told her. She can tell, however, that Rose has been thinking about her father a lot lately... and she can tell that Rose has travelled a long way, from a strange sort of London where the people walk around in immodest clothing and where the streets are filled with racing metal boxes and the sky with flying metal birds. She can also tell that Rose has seen the strangest of things "the darkness, the big bad wolf..." Shaken, Gwyneth backs away, apologising profusely but the Doctor, standing in the doorway, has heard everything. Gwyneth is forced to admit that she's had this talent since she was a child, but lately it's been growing stronger. The Doctor explains that Gwyneth has grown up on top of the time rift, and has thus become a part of it. And that means she can help them perform a séance.
Dickens is reluctant to participate in anything so ridiculous, but the Doctor persuades him to join in. With some prompting from the Doctor, Gwyneth opens herself up to her Sight, and to Dickens' shock, blue gas drifts down about the table and takes the form of three angelic, humanoid figures who are now able to communicate through Gwyneth. The spectres identify themselves as the Gelth, and claim that they lost their corporeal forms in the time war that tore the Universe apart; the few that remain are dying, and they need to occupy the bodies of the human dead in order to survive. However, the rift is unstable, and after passing through, they are too weak to control the bodies for very long; in order to inhabit them permanently, they need Gwyneth to stabilise the rift. The Gelth then vanish back into the gas lamps, and Gwyneth collapses as the stunned Dickens struggles to accept these fantastic events.
Later, Rose tends to the exhausted Gwyneth while the Doctor clarifies matters for the bewildered Sneed. Rose is appalled by the Gelth's request for bodies, but the Doctor respects the living more than the dead, and he refuses to let the Gelth die just because Rose doesn't like the thought of dead bodies being recycled for other living beings. Gwyneth then points out that it's her choice to make, and although she can tell Rose doesn't think she's very bright, she's made her decision; she thinks of the Gelth as angels, and will do what she can to help them. Rose still thinks it's pointless, as the dead didn't start to walk in 1869 but the Doctor informs her that Time is in flux now, and the history Rose knows can be overwritten as easily as snapping one's fingers.
Sneed tells the Doctor that he's seen more apparitions and walking dead in the morgue than anywhere else, and the Doctor takes the others there in search of the rift. A Gelth appears to them, thanking the Doctor effusively for his help, but the Doctor insists that this is a temporary solution only; once the transfer is complete, he will take the Gelth to another world where they can build proper bodies for themselves. The Gelth then guides Gwyneth to the source of the rift, beneath an archway in the morgue, and despite Rose's concerns, Gwyneth opens herself up to the powers of the rift. The bridgehead is established, and Gelth begin to pour out of Gwyneth's open mouth... far more than anyone was expecting. The Gelth above Gwyneth transforms from a cherubic blue to a fiery, demonic red, and reveals that there are in fact billions of Gelth in need of corporeal forms. Sneed tries to plead for Gwyneth to stop, but one of the Gelth-possessed corpses grabs him and snaps his neck, killing him... and immediately providing the Gelth with another corpse to inhabit. The Gelth in fact intend to wipe out the entire human race and take this world for themselves...
The terrified Dickens flees for his life, and one of the gaseous Gelth pursues him out into the streets where it is drawn into the flame of a flickering street lamp before it recognises the danger. Realising what's happened, Dickens musters his courage and rushes back into the funeral home, where he begins snuffing out the lamps' flames, filling the house with gas. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Rose are trapped behind a barred archway in the mortuary, and as the Gelth-possessed corpses try to claw through to get them, they realise that they're doomed. Rose will die a century before she was born, and the Doctor who has seen the fall of Troy, World War Five, and the Boston Tea Party is going to be killed by walking corpses in a cellar... in Cardiff. They vow to go down fighting together, but before it comes to that, Dickens bursts into the room and begins snuffing the flames and turning up the lamps. The Doctor soon realises what he's doing: as the Gelth consist of gas in their natural forms, filling the room with gas will draw them out of their dead hosts. The possessed corpses turn on Dickens, but before they can attack him, the Gelth are drawn out of the bodies, which collapse dead to the floor.
As the morgue fills with gas, the Doctor urges Gwyneth to send the Gelth back through the rift, but she seems stunned, as if devastated by her angels' betrayal. She tells the Doctor that she isn't strong enough to send them back but she can hold them here, and deal with them. Rose protests as Gwyneth pulls a box of matches from her pocket, but the Doctor sends her and Dickens to safety, promising that he won't let Gwyneth die. But when he tries to take the matches from her, he realises that it's already too late and after double-checking her pulse, he has little choice but to bid Gwyneth a sorrowful farewell. Gwyneth gives her friends time to get clear before she lights a match, igniting the gas and triggering a massive explosion that blows out the interior of the funeral home. Rose is horrified when the Doctor emerges without Gwyneth, but he sadly informs Rose that Gwyneth had already been dead for five minutes when she spoke to them; she was probably killed as soon as she opened the rift. He, Rose and Dickens sadly watch the burning funeral home, knowing that Gwyneth saved the world and that her sacrifice will never be known.
Dickens accompanies the Doctor and Rose back to the TARDIS to say goodbye; he intends to return to London immediately to spend Christmas with his family and make amends. Now that he knows how much more there is to learn about the world, his imagination has been inspired, and he intends to change the ending of his latest novel so that Edwin Drood is killed, not by his uncle, but by something not of this earth. The Doctor and Rose wish him good luck and step into the TARDIS, where the Doctor sadly informs Rose that Dickens will die in six months, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished but at least he'll be happy for the last few months of his life. The TARDIS dematerialises, and Dickens, giddy with excitement, walks back out into the streets of Cardiff, filled with hope for the future.
- Aliens in Cardiff: The first appearance of the Cardiff Rift.
- All Part of the Show: Mr Redpath's grandmother's face turns blue and the Gelth leave her body during Charles Dickens' reading of A Christmas Carol. Dickens tries to explain it away as "a trick of the lights". Unlike usual, though, the audience doesn't believe him and runs.
- Arc Words:Gwyneth: [to Rose] The things you've seen. The darkness. The Big Bad Wolf.
- Asshole Victim: Sneed starts off concealing the fact that the bodies of the recently departed are moving about on their own. While understandable given these unexplainable occurrences, he goes from there to concealing at least one death, blackmails Gwyneth to protect himself, and kidnaps Rose.
- Attending Your Own Funeral: One of the Gelth-possessed corpses nearly did this.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Charles Dickens helping the Doctor fight alien ghosts.
- Bittersweet Ending: Although they prevail, the Doctor reminds Rose as they leave that Dickens is within a year of his death, and will not complete his next novel.
- Blatant Lies: When Rose confronts Gwyneth, she claims the old lady is suffering from "a brain fever", when said old lady is stone dead. Rose doesn't buy it for a second.
- Bottle Episode: The previous episode, "The End of the World", spared no expense as it was meant to retain viewers who had followed from the premiere. This episode was filmed in the same block as "The End of the World", and while there are special effects, note how this episode is a Period Piece to save money by using the BBC's already existing sets and costumes without having to create any.
- Can't Argue with Elves: Or, in this case, with the Doctor.
- Casting Gag: Simon Callow is a Dickensian scholar and has played Charles Dickens on several other programs.
- Changed My Jumper: The Doctor makes Rose change into something less distressing to Victorian sensibilities, but makes no changes to his own outfit except a new jumper. Nobody but Dickens remarks on the Doctor's attire, and he merely thinks the Doctor is just some navvy (labourer).
- Christmas Episode: Takes place on Christmas Eve, but very little Christmas-related happens apart from Dickens having a Scrooge-like rejuvenation. Makes sense, since it aired in the spring.
- Condescending Compassion: Rose is sympathetic towards Gwyneth for her sad lot in life, and tries to give her advice on how to improve her situation. Except that Gwyneth doesn't feel her lot in life is particularly sad, and is insulted by the insinuation. Softened somewhat by the fact that Gwyneth can read Rose, and understands that this is simply due to Rose's background being fundamentally different from hers.
- Continuity Nod: As shown in the page quote, the Doctor mentions having seen the fall of Troy.
- Dead All Along: Gwyneth convinces the Doctor to leave so that she can stop the Gelth. The Doctor checks her pulse and escapes before she ignites the gas in the parlour. He later informs Rose and Charles Dickens that Gwyneth had been dead for several minutes.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Between Rose and Gwyneth. Rose comes from 21st century Britain, where education is standard for all children and a considerably more relaxed class system allows for more social mobility, with ambition to move upward being largely encouraged. Also, fewer people have domestic servants in her time. Gwyneth is a 19th century servant girl in a much more stratified society. Rose has a problem with this, but Gwyneth does not.
- Dirty Old Man: Rose accuses Sneed of feeling her up while loading her onto the hearse.
- Early Instalment Weirdness: Meta example: it's the only Christmas Episode of the revival that isn't a special and aired in April.
- False Innocence Trick: The Gelth claim to be refugees from the Great Time War who have lost their bodies and only want to use dead humans as Meat Suits. It turns out that there are many more of them than they claimed, and they want to take over all humanity, not just the dead ones. Granted, they're not actually lying the key here is that they just need dead bodies. A few billion. Which means a majority (if not all) of the human population of Earth at the time.
- Follow That Car: After Rose is abducted in a hearse, the Doctor leaps into a nearby carriage and instructs the driver to follow that hearse. However, the carriage turns out to be a privately-owned vehicle, and the driver refuses to go anywhere without the say-so of his employer. Who turns out to be Dickens.
- Foreshadowing: The Doctor and Dickens talking about The Signal-man and A Christmas Carol.
- Ghostly Chill: The morgue cools down when the Gelth appear.
- Go Through Me:Gelth: We want this world and all its flesh!
The Doctor: Not while I'm alive.
Gelth: Then live no more!
- Great Offscreen War: The Gelth mention that the Time War wasn't visible to lower species, but it was to anyone sufficiently advanced enough, like themselves.
- The Greatest Story Never Told: Rose laments that no one will ever know what Gwyneth did.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Gwyneth becomes the voice for the Gelth, who claim to wish to pass through a rift to Earth using her as a gateway in order to possess human corpses to regain physical form. The Doctor and Gwyneth agree, only for the Gelth to pour through the rift and reveal their true intentions of taking Earth by force. Gwyneth promptly traps the Gelth within the house, has the others flee, and lights a match, igniting the gaseous Gelth and destroying the house with her inside.
- Historical Domain Character: Charles Dickens.
- Historical In-Joke: Dickens declares his intention to incorporate the Gelth into the climax of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a novel that will go uncompleted because he'll die.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Charles Dickens, lifelong skeptic and debunker of bullshit, finally encounters a real psychic and ghosts. The next scene shows him downing a something or other and actor Simon Callow does a good job of showing him a little worse for wear. And drink.
- Idiot Ball: The Doctor himself seems to be holding one when he urges helping the Gelth cross a space-time rift without even bothering to wonder why the corpses they have so far taken over all turned homicidal immediately. Possibly justified in that he feels responsible for the Gelth as victims of the Time War.
- I'll Take That as a Compliment: After Rose has changed into period-appropriate clothing:The Doctor: Blimey, you look beautiful... considering.
Rose: Considering what?
The Doctor: That you're human.
Rose: I think that's a compliment...
- I'm Your Biggest Fan: The Doctor to Charles Dickens. Bonus points for having to explain what a "fan" is.
- Innocuously Important Episode: The episode introduces the Rift in Cardiff. Without that rift, the events in "Boom Town", the show's first, third and fourth series' finales and "The End of Time" would not have taken place... nor any of Torchwood. There's also the fact that one of the main characters in Torchwood is named Gwen Cooper and is an implied lookalike relative of Gwyneth.
- In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: This was the first "Celebrity Historical" of the new series.
- Invading Refugees: The Gelth were fleeing the Time War.
- I Was Just Passing Through: The Doctor claims this when Dickens inquires as to his true identity.
- The Knights Who Say "Squee!": The Doctor squees at learning he's sitting next to Charles Dickens.
- Lame Pun Reaction: During the séance:The Doctor: Don't antagonise her. I love a happy medium.
Rose: I can't believe you just said that.
- Literary Work of Magic: At the end, Charles Dickens is inspired to write the episode's monsters into The Mystery of Edwin Drood so the world will know the truth. Of course, he suffers Author Existence Failure before finishing it.
- Names to Run Away From: The Gelth.
- Newspaper Dating: The Doctor uses a paper to determine that they are not, in fact, in 1860 Naples, but rather 1869 Cardiff. Rose doesn't care until she hears that last bit. "Right..."
- Nightmare Face: The Gelth◊, upon revealing their true colours.
- Noodle Incident: Apparently, the Doctor pushed boxes at the Boston Tea Party and fought in World War V.
- Not Using the "Z" Word: The Gelth aren't called ghosts in the story, which is fair enough since they aren't actually ghosts, just gas creatures. They can also possess human bodies for a little zombie action.
- Possessing a Dead Body: Recently deceased corpses are being inhabited by the Gelth, gaseous aliens who had lost their corporal forms. It gave the impression of ghosts possessing corpses to rise as zombies. While the Gelth initially feigned victimhood to invoke sympathy in the Doctor, they're later revealed to be malicious, as they desire all living humans to be dead so they can inhabit their bodies too.
- Properly Paranoid: When the Doctor approved the Gelth's plan, Rose was oppose to the idea as bringing the undead is wrong as dead things are suppose to stay dead. Turns out she was almost right as the Gelth reveal that they just want to take over the planet.
- Psychic Powers: Gwyneth. They give her a connection to the Rift.
- Puppeteer Parasite: The Gelth.
- Reaction Shot: Rose glances at the Doctor when the Time War is mentioned. His face is unreadable, but she's right about there being a connection to the Doctor.
- Rebel Relaxation: The Doctor, while watching Dickens check out a corpse.
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: You know the Gelth aren't what they claim when the one speaking through Gwyneth changes from a soothing uniform blue to having red eyes.
- Running Gag: There are two instances of anti-Welsh bigotry from both the Doctor and Rose in this episode (the page quote by the Doctor and Rose's disappointment about them landing in Cardiff of all places).
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Rose dons a period-appropriate gown for the 19th century. The Doctor notices, before adding "considering".
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Dickens references Hamlet when the Doctor can't explain how Gwyneth had saved them in spite of the fact that she was dead.
- Spooky Séance: At the Doctor's suggestion, they hold a séance, presided over by Gwyneth, to contact the Gelth. She bases it on what she's seen the Spiritualists that she's gone to for advice on her powers do.
- Stealth Pun:
- Gwyneth addresses Rose as "the big bad wolf". Rose has come to 1869 Cardiff wearing makeup, which at the time was only worn by prostitutes, and "she-wolf" is an old slang term for one.
- "What the Shakespeare is going on?" said by Charles Dickens. (The "dickens" in "what the dickens?" refers to the devil, not Charles Dickens. Still, amusing.)
- Taking You with Me: Gwyneth and the Doctor realize that since the Gelth are using Gwyneth to enter our universe, she must sacrifice herself to stop them coming. The Doctor tries to talk her out of it, but she refuses. She closes the rift and destroys the malevolent gaseous beings by igniting the gas-filled (thanks to a previous attempt to stop the Gelth) air with a match, blowing up the house, the creatures and herself.
- Temporal Paradox: Rose thinks that this means the Gelth can't kill her in 1869, since she's still living in 2005. As the Doctor explains, however, time travel doesn't work that way her travel from 2005 to 1869 doesn't affect her ability to die.
- Wham Line: "Maybe your dad's up there too, miss" is one for Rose. She didn't mention her father at any point to Gwyneth.
- White Man's Burden: Subverted. In a temporal socio-economic version of the trope, Rose takes pity on Gwyneth and tries to stop the Doctor from "using" her to let the Gelth through. Gwyneth does not appreciate this, accusing Rose of thinking that she's stupid and unable to understand what is going on just because she didn't have an education.
- World War Whatever: The Doctor mentions having seen World War V.
- Yet Another Christmas Carol: Downplayed, but the elements are still there; adventures with ghostly creatures and time travellers help shake Charles out of his ennui.